Tuesday 11 August, 2020

The 'curse' of the early general election

File photo of then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller at a PNP rally in Petersfield, Westmoreland in 2015. Simpson Miller suffered a shock defeat at the polls in February 2016 after calling early elections.

File photo of then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller at a PNP rally in Petersfield, Westmoreland in 2015. Simpson Miller suffered a shock defeat at the polls in February 2016 after calling early elections.

By Lynford Simpson

On at least four occasions in Jamaica’s electoral history, the calling of an early election has proved to be a nightmare for the party that has done so.

The Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) has lived this nightmare on at least three occasions, the more cautious governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has walked this road once.

An early election is sometimes forced like on October 30, 1980 when Michael Manley sent Jamaicans to the polls early only to see the PNP suffer a massive defeat at the hands of Edward Seaga and the JLP. An early poll was also forced on Andrew Holness and the JLP after Bruce Golding left the JLP in disarray following the Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke extradition saga which saw Golding resigning as prime minister and handing the reins of the party and the government to Holness.

For purposes of this article, an election is deemed to be called early if at least nine months, (excluding the three-month ‘grace period’) is left in the party’s term in office.

Holness... was defeated at the polls in December 2011 after calling early elections.

The early election ‘curse’ first hit the PNP in 1962 when inexplicably, Premier Norman Manley, who was victorious at the polls for a second straight term on July 28, 1959, set April 10, 1962 as the date for Jamaicans to go to the polls. He had over two years left in office and should have been Jamaica’s first independent prime minister. Instead, that honour fell to Alexander Bustamante who led the JLP to victory and bragging rights about Jamaica’s most prosperous decade in terms of economic growth.

Historians, scholars and analysts have given their take on why Manley called it early. Among other reasons, they talk/write about the fact that Manley was disappointed when Jamaicans voted by way of a referendum to leave the West Indies Federation on September 19, 1961. That was a stinging defeat and the Federation was ultimately dissolved in 1962. Scholars also posit that Manley entered into a ‘gentleman’s agreement with Bustamante about which party should lead Jamaica into independence. That decision was settled in 1959.

Manley more likely, as some historians have suggested, wanted a confidence boosting win after the Federation defeat. Whatever it was, his decision to call the elections early backfired big time and he never lived long enough to become prime minister as he died in 1969 at age 76. That honour would fall to his son Michael, who would taste victory at the polls on three occasions but who also lived through the nightmare of calling an early election only to be blown away at the polls.

In Jamaica, general elections are constitutionally due within five years and three months of the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament. Since the last election was held on February 25, 2016, and taking the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament into consideration, Prime Minister Andrew Holness could wait as long as June 10, 2021 to call the next election.

Michael Manley... set the election date for October 30, 1980, with nearly 14 months still left in his second term.

That said, there are times when a government is left with no choice but to call an early election. Unlike his father, Michael Manley was faced with such a situation. When Manley set the election date for October 30, 1980, there were nearly 14 months still left in his second term in office. He had led the PNP to a comfortable win over the JLP on December 15, 1976, following up his February 29, 1972 victory.

While it turned out to be a horror show for the person who was once the most popular politician, not just in Jamaica but the Caribbean and even beyond, Manley had no choice but to send Jamaicans to the polls early. Numerous factors have been highlighted by historians over the decades since, including the poor state of the economy that was exacerbated by the world oil crisis of 1979, the withdrawal of Jamaica from a rather austere programme with the International Monetary Fund, ostensibly because the terms were too onerous, and the PNP lagging the Opposition party in public opinion polls.

The ideological divide that was at the centre of the Cold War between the East and West loomed large in Jamaica at the time. Whether real or perceived, the fear that Manley was embracing communism saw Jamaicans turning up at the polls in record numbers. On election night, a terrified country that recorded over 800 dead due to election violence saw Seaga and the JLP registering a massive victory over Manley and the PNP.

It was a rout for the PNP, yet, within two years, Manley was said to be the most popular politician in the country. Having boycotted the snap election called by Seaga for December 1983 because the prime minister had reportedly broken his promise to clean up the voters’ list, Manley had to wait until February 1989 to taste victory at the polls again and it was a big one. That was his final victory before ill health forced him to hand the leadership of the party and the reins of government to PJ Patterson in 1992.

Premier Norman Manley had over two years left in office when he made Jamaicans go to the polls in 1962.

Of all the early elections that ended in defeat for the governing party, the one triggered by Orette Bruce Golding was unique in that it was neither called nor contested by him. After leading the JLP to victory in 2007 after 18-and-a-half years in the political wilderness, Golding had the support of many young people who had known no other government other than the PNP. Expectations were running high in the country. However, it was all derailed by 2010 at the height of the Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke extradition saga.

Golding, for reasons known only to him initially, decided to back Coke, the then Tivoli Gardens strongman after the United States had requested his extradition on gun and drug-running charges. During the standoff between Kingston and Washington, criminal elements loyal to Coke clashed with the security forces across the Corporate Area where several police stations were torched. Scores of women who poured into the streets of West Kingston in a strong show of support for Coke, vowed to follow the Tivoli Gardens don like they followed Christ.

Coke was eventually captured and extradited to the US after escaping a security force dragnet in Tivoli Gardens in May 2010 and after being on the run for a month. Tragically, over 70 people, including a Jamaica Defence Force soldier lost their lives in the so-called West Kingston incursion to capture Coke as gunmen, fiercely loyal to him, mounted barricades and took up positions to do battle with the security forces.

On October 23, 2011, Golding resigned as prime minister after belatedly admitting that he sanctioned the engagement of a US-based law firm to defend Coke in his extradition fight with the US. This was after an earlier denial in the parliament.

Golding’s resignation and his anointing of Holness as his successor meant an early election was on the cards. The influential private sector had abandoned the JLP and, having been anointed rather than selected by the JLP Members of Parliament, Holness was on shaky grounds. He had little choice but to call the election early with nine months still to go in the JLP’s first term in office in nearly two decades. When he sent Jamaicans to the polls in December 2011, he lost in a landslide to Portia Simpson Miller and the PNP. The JLP would suffer the dubious distinction of becoming Jamaica’s first one-term government since Universal Adult Suffrage and the first election in 1944.

The early election curse and the one-term scenario would both be repeated just about four years later. This time it appeared the PNP was anxious to join the ranks of the Opposition and the one-term administrations. Like 1962, the reasons for the PNP calling an early election, were never made clear.

The PNP has been on the losing end of more early elections than the JLP. If the 1980 early election could be explained and if the senior Manley could be given a pass for calling it more than two years early and losing in 1962, it has not yet been fully explained why Simpson Miller sent Jamaicans to the polls early on February 25, 2016. It is now history that the JLP, led by Holness, subjected the PNP to a shock defeat, making the PNP also a one-term government for the first time in its history.

When the election date was set, the PNP still had nearly a year in office. It had battled to bring the country back from the brink of economic disaster, the JLP having ditched the programme it had entered into with the IMF. After four years of austerity and serious belt tightening for Jamaicans, the PNP inexplicably suggested that there could be more of the same if it were to return to office. It also brushed aside the JLP’s $1.5 million tax plan which, according to analysts, proved to be the clincher.

It subsequently emerged in the years following that the PNP had negotiated all the loans for the major multi-billion dollar road works for the Corporate Area without implementing the mega projects for which the JLP is now getting all the credit. And within months of the JLP returning to power, the IMF programme was relaxed. Up to the time the COVID-19 crisis started affecting Jamaica earlier this year, the JLP administration was boasting of presiding over the best economy in 40 years, although crime continued to be a major challenge.

The JLP was touting an early election until the COVID-19 pandemic derailed those plans. The said pandemic will likely ensure that the election is still called early, sometime before the end of 2020 although it is not constitutionally due until February 2021, with up to June 10, 2021 for the vote to take place.

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